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Climate change could make America's coldest cities today the climate havens of tomorrow

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Posted at 8:22 AM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-04 12:58:21-05

BUFFALO, NY. — As the Earth continues to warm, some of the coldest places in the country could become a more desirable place for people to live.

Scientists expect more and more people to move out of warmer places, leave the coasts and flock to cities that are seeing less severe impacts from climate change. Those places are being called "climate havens."

“There's no place that's safe from climate change,” said University at Buffalo professor, Nick Rajkovich.

However, there are places across America that will be safer, and less impacted by the extreme consequences of a changing climate.

“People will potentially be retreating from the coasts, and it puts places like Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit and Duluth in a, in a situation where they may receive people in the future, you know, looking for someplace that's been more stable,” said Rajkovich, a professor in the Department of Architecture.

Rajkovich studies climate migration, where people are moving because of changes in our climate. He said he has already observed people moving to Buffalo as climate refugees because the city has experienced less warming than other cities and has access to freshwater.

“Basically, four out of five of the Great Lakes are dumping their freshwater into the Niagara River here,” said Rajkovich.

Buffalo is expected to one day have a much more temperate climate as well: think less snow, warmer winters.

“Our climate here is expected to be something close to what they have in Tennessee,” said Rajkovich.

Hurricane Maria pushed thousands of Puerto Ricans out, many moved to Buffalo, because housing is affordable and there aren’t hurricanes to deal with.

Experts say elsewhere, drought in the Great Plains will push people to Minneapolis, Chicago and Denver.

Wildfires and heatwaves could push people toward Sacramento and Seattle in the west.

Rising sea levels in Florida, New York and California bring opportunity for growth to places like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit.

“What we're starting to see with climate change is not a shock, specific movement of people, but really just changing consumer preferences,” said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of Real Estate in the School of Architecture at Tulane University. “People are just changing their idea about how and where to live. Altogether, there's a lot of costs of climate changing. Those costs and climate change are beginning to undermine the affordability and accessibility of many places across the United States. There's a history of people moving from disasters, but we're starting to see something much bigger. And what that is, is a change of our consumer preferences.”

That is why cities like Buffalo are preparing today.

“I really believe in the idea that Buffalo can be an example to the world,” said Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of PUSH Buffalo.

Ghirmatzion runs a community advocacy nonprofit that seeks to create housing and environmental equity for underserved communities. Buffalo has some of the oldest housing in the entire country, and much of it sits in disrepair today. PUSH Buffalo is working to update and improve the city’s housing for existing residents before climate migrants come and put an even larger burden on the quality housing supply.

“Buffalo went through a very, very deep economic decline economic free fall for about 50 years. And we really just felt like our neighborhoods were forgotten. And so, we rallied the troops,” said Ghirmatzion of how her group has increased affordable housing and improved homes across Buffalo.

PUSH Buffalo wants to make sure natives aren’t left behind as the city grows into a haven for other Americans.

“What's at stake is an opportunity to really revive our economy but do it in a way that is in right relationship with the people that are here and in right relationship with the natural world around us,” said Ghirmatzion.

Buffalo’s infrastructure was built for about half a million people, but today, the city has about 280,000 residents. There is room to grow, but there are challenges.

“It is a highly segregated community, and the inequalities are highly racialized inequalities,” said Ghirmatzion.

“Cities like Buffalo make the mistake of thinking if they build the infrastructure for the higher income groups, that that's the key to building the great city,” said Dr. Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a professor at the University at Buffalo and Director of the UB Center for Urban Studies. “You have to transform the lives of ordinary people. You have to create quality neighborhoods for low-income population and groups. The city that gets that will be the one that attracts all of the groups.”

Ghirmatzion wants to make sure the neighborhood she grew up in are not gentrified so lower-income families can afford to stay here and move here.

“We are buying up the land, keeping it under community control and keeping it affordable permanently. And so, what we do is we built affordable rental units. We also work a lot in green efficiency and new energy technology, but we're not doing it fast enough.”

The community groups are working to lift the most vulnerable groups to make sure when higher-income climate migrants come, who have no problem accessing resources and housing, there are also options for the lower-income families, too.

The City of Buffalo said it is on board with improving conditions for families of all income levels to not only improve the city for current residents, but to prepare Buffalo to be a world example of a climate haven.

“It has to be this two-tiered approach, because otherwise, you really do risk gentrification. But thinking ahead about that combination of new build and improving existing infrastructure is how you combat that effectively,” said Robert Mayer, who works for the City of Buffalo.

Mayer said the city is implementing changes today to things like the zoning codes to start preparing the city for better housing.

“The desire to have immediacy in action is very strong. But when we're talking about an existential threat, like global climate change, it's going to take us years to build up to that,” said Mayer.

Still, the community and city leaders know, if they prepare now, they can set an example of a greener, more inclusive future.

“Not just for America, but really around the world,” said Ghirmatzion.